Horse Feathers 

Frontman Justin Ringle finds new energy for Portland band in collaborations

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Two years ago, Ringle's band had been asked to play an impromptu gig at Sasquatch a mere week before the festival. He agreed to the show, bringing with him old tunes and a fresh lineup that included a new rhythm section. In the past, Horse Feathers had been a glorified solo project for Ringle, with no bassist and little in the way of percussion, and he'd only recently entertained the idea of fleshing out the band.

The result was a Horse Feathers show with more energy and vitality than he could ever recall. As he left the stage that day, Ringle says, he thought to himself, "Why in the fuck have we not been doing this?"

"It was a major change," he says over the phone, while laying low at singer-songwriter Joe Pug's Texas home before a gig.

The energy from that show carried over into Horse Feathers' new album, So It Is With Us, channeling Ringle's music away from the spare, solemn chamber-folk that had come to define the project since its debut more than a decade ago. Getting there wasn't easy for Ringle, though. He'd grown disillusioned following the band's previous album, 2012's Cynic's New Year, which sold less than any of the three albums that preceded it. He began to question playing music as a career, and wondered if he could survive in a rapidly shifting music industry.

"All those things chip away when you professionally play music," Ringle says. "It's not like going to a cubicle job from 9 to 5. There's no knowing what will happen. If you just can't see the forest for the trees, then you need to take a break."

After coming off tour with Cynic's New Year, Ringle began spending more time at home. He gave up music for a few months and attached himself to a more domestic existence, relishing everyday tasks such as making dinner, taking daily walks—pretty much anything that didn't involve being cooped up in a tour van. When he began to play music again, he tried to reinvigorate his enthusiasm by playing with different people. Out of those collaborations, Ringle developed a new vision for Horse Feathers, which had essentially functioned more as a backing band in the past. He loosened the creative reins, added bassist Justin Power alongside longtime bandmates Nathan Crockett and Dustin Dybvig—mandolinist and percussionist, respectively—and began shaping what would become So It Is With Us.

While not representing a major sea change for Horse Feathers, the album is a departure. It's still laden with an ornate mesh of acoustic guitar, cello and violin, but the tempos are breezier, with more major chords accompanying Ringle's hushed croon. Opener "Violently Wild," a boisterous song about the grimmer aspects of commitment, sets a joyous mood that stretches through songs like "Thousand" and the banjo-driven "Dead End Thanks." Even slower, more brooding numbers such as "The Knee" exude a newfound expansiveness and sense of optimism, owing to a creative process Ringle found less painstaking and more enjoyable.

"I've spent years trying to convince people with just my voice, guitar and some strings. It's a very precious thing," he says with some reluctance. "I know I'm no longer intrigued to go pay to sit down [at a concert]—hands in my lap, eyes closed—and listen to someone the same way I used to when I started. I personally couldn't continue on that way forever."

That's not to say his lyrics have gotten any less arresting. Ringle recognizes the interplay between the downcast nature of his songwriting and the upbeat tone of the instrumentation. It's a decision he made to express feelings that have a way of falling within the aforementioned emotional gray areas of our subconscious. Themes of faith and uncertainty abound. "Tell me why do you try hanging on?" he sings delicately over the isolated piano and sharp guitar of "Why Do I Try." The contrast is more apparent as he ponders the fading relationship of "Violently Wild": "We're out of tune," he sings. "You'll be gone/ And I'll be leaving soon."

For Ringle, though, the recently discovered jubilance of the music was precisely what he needed.

"I spent years being concerned about a million other factors," he says. "We have some fans who still want the music to be sad, but I'm not going to paint myself into some corner as the Prince of Darkness for the next 10 years. I just want to enjoy myself."

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